Breeding Cockatiels

One advantage to breeding cockatiels is that they aren’t extremely hard to pair up and get results. But, if you are breeding for real quality (large, well shaped, well marked, good natured) birds, it’s a bit more of a challenge. Anyone can just place a nestbox on a cage, place two cockatiels of the opposite sex in it, and let nature take it’s course. But, responsible breeding takes a lot more thought and time than that.

In preparing to breed your cockatiels, you have to consider the health of the breeders, their colors and appearance (and what colors you want to end up with) as well as their temperaments. If you want to breed certain mutations, then you will need to familiarize yourself with some basic genetics concepts and how they affect mutations. You also must prepare a cage which will allow the necessary exercise and space during the breeding, brooding, fledging, and weaning stages. In addition to that, you must provide a nestbox which is suitable for the breeding pair and up to around 6 or so babies as they grow.

Sexing

Be sure you start with a true pair. It is possible for females to lay infertile eggs without a male present. It’s hard to sex some cockatiels due to their mutations. The lutino whiteface (a.k.a. albino) and the heavy pied mutations are nearly impossible to visually sex due to the lack of any darker color in their tail feathers and their wings. Generally, if the bird is extremely vocal, it’s a male, but some females also have this ability.

A bit more accurate (but not always) is to check the tail feathers for barring and the underside of the wings for dots. Most males lose the barring on their tails and the dots under their wings during their first major molt at between 6 and 9 months of age. The females in all of the mutations which have dark tail/wing feathers will retain their tail barring and wing dots.

The female will also normally retain some color in the cheek patches. The females cheek patches are generally (not always) lighter than those of their male counterparts except in the whiteface mutations where the male loses his cheek patches totally to the whiteface. In the Whiteface mutations, females normally have soft brown, tan or grey cheek patches (depending on the body color) which are barely visible at times, while the males have all white faces with no other color to their cheeks.

I would not recommend that you check the pelvic bones as a means of sexing a bird. The first and most important reason I would advise against this is that if you are not experienced at it, you can actually harm the bird. Also, according to veterinarians I’ve spoken to, and from my personal experience, this isn’t accurate unless the bird has already laid an egg. Some young males have wide pelvic bones which will gradually grow closer. Some young females have narrow pelvic bones which will spread during the process of egg laying.

Breeding Age

DON’T breed your birds until they are mature. Some birds don’t fully mature until 18-24 months, but generally a female is mature at 18 months and males at 12-15 months. Their bodies can produce eggs as young as 6 months of age but not without very serious consequences. Young birds generally don’t make good parents and young hens run a much greater risk of dying from egg binding.

Getting Acquainted

You may want to place the birds together in the breeding cage for a getting acquainted period. After you notice some bonding behavior, then you can add the nestbox. This introduction period isn’t necessary but, it generally improves your chances of having fertile eggs if the birds are bonded before the nestbox is added.

Mating Behavior

Males cockatiels have a very unique style of courting. Comparing them to other birds I’ve bred, I think the cockatiels are the most romantic and the most entertaining.

When first introduced, a pair may pay no attention at all to each other. But, as time passes (sometimes minutes, sometimes months) they generally become a bonded pair. Some signs of bonding are spending time next to each other on the perch, eating together, mutual preening, and the actual act of mating.

A female tiel wanting to mate will sit low on the perch with her tail in the air while emitting a sort of tiny peeping sound. This and hanging upside down from the perch with her tail feathers spread is the only courting behavior I’ve observed in hens other than the hens rubbing their vents on items like the perch or a favorite toy. The female may also try to feed her intended mate. I have one female that actually bullies her mate into letting her feed him.

When a male cockatiel is interested in a female, he generally displays a combination of the following courting behaviors:

  1. Beak Pounding : Tapping the beak on the cage wires, the nestbox or anything else within reach to get the female’s attention. The sound is somewhat like a rowdy woodpecker.
  2. The Strut: Male cockatiels tend to do a strange looking strut and dance while whistling, chattering, screaming and beak pounding. They’ll hop, bow their heads quickly (possibly tapping the beak on the floor), whistle and then do it all again. It’s rather comical to watch but can get disturbing to those who aren’t used to the sound.
  3. The Wing Thing: This describes when a male cockatiel holds the top portion of his wings away from his body to try to get the females attention. If you look at them from the back while they are doing this display, you will notice the wings take on the shape of a heart. This is generally used in conjunction with several of the other types of courting behavior.
  4. Whistling: There are several cockatiel mating calls and each male also brings with this, their own compositions.
  5. Checking out the nestbox: Before a female tiel will generally enter a nestbox, it has to be checked and approved as “safe” by the male. Once he jumps in and out of the box several times and whistles to her from inside (and of course bangs his beak), mating will generally occur soon.

 

The mating occurs when the female crouches low on the perch and raises her tail feathers. The male then mounts the female’s back from the side, stands on her back, tucks his tail under hers and proceeds to rub his vent against hers. He will swish his tail side to side until the act is complete. During this time, the male will most likely be very gentle, kissing, preening, and whistling to his mate.

Before your pair reaches this point, you may want to make sure the males toenails aren’t sharp or long. If they are, you’ll need to clip them. The female will not tolerate a male on top of her long enough to complete copulation if the nails are hurting her. Also, before breeding season begins, I clip the feathers around the vents of my breeders to provide more breeding success. I started this with my larger birds and when I found it worked with them, I began it with my cockatiels. I’ve had no clear eggs in birds I’ve clipped but did have them previously.

Copulation may occur several times a day. Eggs won’t be produced from each mating. Cockatiels, like people don’t always mate to raise a family. When they are ready to “make babies”, the eggs will generally come.

After copulation you will need to start providing water for the hen. She will occasionally use this to sit in to provide moisture for the eggs (both the ones in the nest and the ones inside her).

One way you will know eggs are on the way (within a day or so) is that the hen will start having what I refer to as “pre lays”. The droppings are retained by the female for long periods of time. Due to this, they will be HUGE compared to normal droppings. You will know these when you see them. These will continue throughout the nesting period. The hen may only come out to eliminate these every 12 hours. This is not unusual once they are staying in the nestbox for longer periods of time.

Expect your pairs to fight some but they shouldn’t fight to the point that one of them gets hurt. If that should happen, remove the offending party and try starting from scratch with a new mate. The type of fights I’m referring to would be more like lovers quarrels. The male may want the female more often than the female wants the male and a quarrel ensues. The female may think the male needs to share the brooding or he may want to flirt with the female in the next cage while his mate is on eggs and a quarrel follows. Basically, they seem to act a lot like humans who are about to become, or are new parents. If you’re lucky, they will both take to the mating/brooding/feeding like a pro and will get along like honeymooners.

Diet

Wild cockatiels normally feed on seeds, grasses, leaves and bark (from trees, bushes, and other vegetation). Additionally, cockatiels will eat grubs and different insects. Cockatiels are ground feeders which is one reason to use a grate on the bottom of their cages.

When preparing your birds for breeding and caring for young, provide them with a variety of nutritious soft foods and calcium supplements such as cuttlebone and/or mineral blocks. The calcium is used by the female’s body during egg production. If the hen doesn’t have enough calcium stored in her body, the eggs can be soft shelled and egg binding is more likely. Some foods I offer my breeders (in addition to pellets and seeds) are cooked rice, pasta, beans, corn on the cob, peas, oatmeal, carrots, broccoli, sweet potatoes, moist (not soaked) whole wheat bread, and things which have been cooked or softened in some manner. Even if your birds don’t generally eat some of these items, they usually aren’t picky during breeding and will feed their young as long as the food is soft and moist enough to feed to the babies. This is the perfect time to offer these items. It still may take the pair several tries before they will eat them, but generally they are willing to feed it to the babies once they arrive. I also sprinkle Bene-Bac, Spirulina, Echinacea, and Prozyme on all fresh food items I offer my birds. Remove fresh foods from the cage and replace every few hours to help control possible bacterial and fungal overgrowth.

Never breed an overweight bird (male or female). Obesity in birds tends to be passed on genetically. Another reason not to breed an overweight hen is that you take a much greater risk of her egg binding or having other related problems. One way to tell if a bird is overweight is to wet the feathers on the bird’s abdomen with a small amount of rubbing alcohol. If you see a yellowish substance or coloring under the skin, it is overweight. At that point, I would recommend you check with a veterinarian about a good diet for your bird and choose another bird for breeding purposes.

Breeding Cages

Provide as much space as possible for a breeding cage. Most of my breeding cages are around 4′ long by 18″ deep by 18″ high. If you can provide larger cages, it would be even better for the birds. In the cages I either add natural branches or at least two perches.

Nestboxes

For breeding purposes (in the wild) cockatiels prefer the wooded areas which are close to streams and rivers in the western regions of Australia. They will then make their nests in either holes, hollow branches or in rotting stumps or dead trees. When necessary, cockatiels will nest in live trees, but prefer not to do so. The cockatiels will form a depression in the bottom of their nests made of wood chips or rotting wood. No other nesting materials are generally used.

Most of my nestboxes are 12″x12″x12″ and this seems to be a good size for both the parents and the babies. The majority of cockatiel breeders use boxes with 3″ round holes near the top of the nestbox for the breeders to enter the box through. They also attach the boxes near the top of the cages. I (and my birds) prefer using rectangular 4″ x 5″ entrances which are located about 4″ from the bottom of the nestbox. I attach the boxes near the bottom of the cage and on one end. I’ve found when trying both types of boxes, the birds were less hesitant to enter the boxes I use since they can stand on the floor of the cage and look in to be sure they are fine before entering them to prepare them for the female.

Clutches and Incubation

In the wild, a cockatiel normally lays from 3 to 10 eggs per clutch depending on the maturity of the birds and the time of year. I don’t know how many of these live through weaning in the wild, but in captivity very few could raise ten babies to fledging/weaning.

Cockatiels in captivity generally lay between 3 and 8 eggs per clutch with the average being around 4 to 5 per clutch. The incubation period starts when the hen or pair start sitting on the eggs constantly. Some hens may wait until the 3rd egg to begin the incubation process, so all eggs will hatch close to the same time. Generally though, the hen will start incubating the eggs by the time she lays the 2nd egg. The normal incubation period for cockatiel eggs is between 18 and 21 days (from the day the hen or pair start sitting the eggs). The male and female generally take turns sitting on the eggs and do this in shifts. Some pairs will divide the eggs and each sit on half of them. They will also share the responsibility for feeding the chicks. Eggs will generally hatch every other day. From my observations, the eggs generally hatch in the early morning hours.

Parent Feeding

Usually, parent birds won’t feed babies until 8 to 12 hours after hatching. This gives the baby a chance to absorb the yolk sac. I’ve never had a baby with a yolk sac problem but, if this isn’t absorbed, the baby is unlikely to survive, even if handfed from day 1. If the parent hasn’t begun to feed the baby after 8 hours, I will generally try to assist by giving the baby a drop or two of Pedialyte and then check again in a few hours to see if the parents have started feeding. Generally they have. If they haven’t after 12 hours, I foster the baby out to another pair, but am prepared to assume the hand feeding role if doesn’t work out. So far I’ve had very few times where I had to hand feed from day 1 and the few times I did, I’ve had poor luck. Babies at this age aren’t much bigger than a large bumble bee and it’s so easy to aspirate them.

A lot of people see a baby laying on it’s back with a full crop and the fat abdomen and think something is wrong but it’s perfectly normal from what I’ve observed with mine. Parents feed the new hatchlings this way until they are strong enough to stand and stretch while begging for food. Generally the one that cries the loudest and stretches the tallest will be the baby to get the majority of the food.

If a parent pushes a baby aside from the rest, there is a good chance it has a medical problem but, don’t give up hope. You may be able to raise the baby to weaning by hand feeding it. I have one hen that will not feed more than 3 babies, but her babies are beautiful. So I let her breed, but plan ahead to either foster the baby out or hand feed it myself. I much prefer the fostering out to a 2 hours feeding schedule around the clock.

Most people believe the parents don’t feed the babies during the night. In my experience, my birds continue feeding the babies through the night. I’m sure of this because my breeders are in the basement below my kitchen (which is where my computer is) and when I work late into the night, the peeping sound that is emitted during feeding is heard through the floor vent between the basement and my kitchen. When I’ve gone to check the boxes with a flashlight at these times, the parents were indeed feeding the babies (the food covering their beaks and faces was proof and seeing them feeding the babies was all the rest of the proof I’ve needed). My breeders feed the babies around the clock and I’ve heard reports from other breeders stating theirs do also.

Handling Chicks and Fledging

I generally band babies at around 10 days and pull babies at around 2 to 2 1/2 weeks of age for handfeeding, even if I intend to use them as possible breeders in the future. I’ve found some of my best breeders and parents were handfed. The handfed parents don’t tend to be as nervous and pluck the babies much less. Most of my handfed breeders allow total access to the nestboxes to check on the eggs and/or babies as long as they get scritches while I’m checking them. The young generally fledge by around 3 1/2 to 4 weeks of age and are eating some foods on their own at this same age. They won’t be completely weaned (eating enough on their own to maintain their weight) generally until between 6 and 10 weeks of age with the average age of weaning being around 8 weeks.

A few things to prepare or watch for when breeding your cockatiels are:

  1. Unless you are EXTREMELY experienced with line breeding, DO NOT breed related birds. This can cause you much sadness and needless suffering on the part of the babies in the end. It causes genetic defects such as babies with extra wings, extra toes, missing toes or feet, birds with twisted spines, bald spots (such as those found in some lutinos), and internal genetic defects which can cause death in the babies. And, these are only a few of the possible problems you could encounter if the babies even live.
  2. Clean nestboxes often (at least every few days). Some, but very few cockatiels will clean their own nestboxes. Depending on the number of chicks in the box it can get quite messy in a very short time period. If you allow the mess to remain, you are inviting bacterial and fungal infections where they aren’t wanted.When I clean the nest boxes, I block the entrance while the parents are out getting food for the babies. I place the babies in a warm bowl lined with tissues and in a warm and draft free location close to me. Then I remove all bedding material, take a wide putty knife and scrape any droppings from the sides of the box (baby birds tend to lift their vents up and eliminate on the sides of the box) and spread clean bedding. Then I return the babies to the nestbox and unblock the entrance. For bedding I use about 3 inches of very large pine chips (much larger than normal pine bedding). By using the larger chips I’ve never had a baby die from ingesting bedding.
  3. If the parents pluck the babies, be watchful for which parent is doing the plucking and change partners before breeding them again. Generally if a parent abuses the babies in this manner, the babies will be abusive towards their babies also. Child and spouse abuse aren’t only found in the human race and it, like a good temperament, is passed down from one generation to the next from what I’ve seen personally with my birds.
  4. If you are making your own cages, DON’T use chicken wire or wire with 1″x1″ square openings. The openings in these types of wire are too large. One day you will come home to find either a dead bird or one close to death, with it’s head stuck in the wires. I’m speaking from experience. It’s VERY upsetting to know it is your fault if something like this has happened. So it is best to avoid the chance of it occurring in the first place. The wire I’ve found the most suitable for cockatiel cages is 1/2″ x 1″ galvanized after welding wire. If you choose to use galvanized wire, scrub it thoroughly with a vinegar and water solution to remove the zinc from the coating. The shinier the wire, the higher the zinc content. As the birds chew on the wire, they ingest some of the zinc which can reach toxic levels and kill your birds. Also, when you see the white powder on the cages, get the vinegar and water out again, because the powder is pure zinc. If you use wire which was welded after it was galvanized, you’re taking a big chance also, since the welds contain the most lead (which can also reach toxic levels in your birds and cause their death).
  5. Don’t surprise the parents by opening the box abruptly when they are on eggs or with chicks. I’ve had parents get scared this way and they trampled babies to death or broke eggs.
  6. DO NOT allow your birds to continue to breed more than two clutches per season. It is best if you only allow 2 clutches per year, but most hens seem to ignore our wishes and lay another clutch before we can pull the first clutch for handfeeding. To let cockatiels lay more than two clutches in a row without shutting them down for a several months rest is dangerous. Over breeding cockatiels will cause egg binding, prolapsed uterus, egg peritonitis and an early death due to breeding related problems in the end.

There are many sources for more information on breeding cockatiels. In addition to books on the subject, the National Cockatiel Society and the American Cockatiel Society are good sources. You can also visit their websites on the Internet and/or participate in Internet cockatiel forums, chats and mailing lists.